Motivation Lessons from a Football Coach

Pastors are motivators. In order to become more effective in the art, we do well to study the techniques of leaders in other professions who do it well. That’s what leads me to mention a book I read this week.

Two days ago, I put on Facebook a note suggesting pastors could learn a lot from Coach Sean Payton’s new book, “Home Team,” his account of the 2009 championship year of the New Orleans Saints. I added a footnote that one might want to beware of the cussing.

Among the comments generated by that was one from a pastor who thought I was elevating a “book with profanity” above the Bible. Jesus was motivator enough for him.

In no way am I putting this book (or any other) above the Bible or suggesting that pastors imitate Coach Payton. The tactics he used to keep his team of multi-millionaire athletes excited about and dedicated to winning football games were his own and probably would not work in the ministry.

Still, he can teach the average pastor a great deal about motivating groups of human beings. That’s why I suggest that buying his book would be a good investment of a few dollars and reading it a worthwhile investment of a few hours. (I read it Monday night and Tuesday morning of this week. It’s a fast read.) One of my sons reminds me that the library carries books and it’s not necessary to actually purchase a book.

First, some of the things Payton did for his team, then a few comments about his techniques….

Sean Payton was on the coaching staff of the New York Giants when they went to the Super Bowl after the 2000 season. They played the Baltimore Ravens in Tampa. Remembering that, Payton writes, “All I knew was that in the week before our 34-7 defeat, our players kept grumbling that the Ravens were getting better hotel room freebies. And the Giants’ wives weren’t happy at all.” He adds, “That’s no mind-set to take into the Super Bowl.”

He chalked it up to pre-game jitters at the time. He had no idea it was the result of a campaign. But sometime later, he overheard the owner of the Ravens tell someone they beat the Giants on the field and off the field too.

That’s when he knew.

One day, Payton said to one of his assistants, “If we ever go to the Super Bowl, you gotta find the guy who did all that stuff for the Ravens.”

His assistant, Mike Ornstein, said, “I was the guy.”

Back in 2000, Mike had been working for the Ravens’ team. He had traveled to Tampa in advance of the teams to make sure his guys got the best accommodations, the best freebies, etc.

That’s why, when Payton knew the Saints were headed to Miami for the February 7, 2010, championship game, he sent Ornstein on ahead. What greeted the Saints in South Florida was a royal welcome.

Billboards lined the highway from the airport to the stadium announcing, “Miami is Saints Country!” There were twenty of them in high visibility spots. Mike was making it clear that the Saints were the home team for this game.

Some of the players had arrived in Miami a few days early for the Pro Bowl Game. So, Payton has some fun. He dresses those players as bell hops and when the other players arrive the next day, they’re there to welcome them and unload their bags. Making it fun.

Inside the rooms, players and their families found more than free stationery and little bottles of shampoo. There was a Sony video camera, gift cards from steakhouses, sandwich shops, and ice creameries. A giant basket was filled with candy, popcorn and drinks.

The next day, the players and their families returned to find their rooms filled with monster bags of Reebok gear–8 hats, 8 t-shirts, 2 jackets, and 2 sweatshirts. The following day, each player got a fancy bathrobe with his name and number sewn in. Next day, expensive sweat suits. Then, the latest kinds of cell-phones.

The wives received bathrobes, slippers, and tons of designer bath products.

Meanwhile, in conversations with the wives of the Colts, they heard, “Really? A camcorder? All we got were caps and t-shirts and a pennant.”

Payton answers the question you and I are thinking: “You mean these millionaires are impressed by such doodads?” He writes:

“It was amazing how much difference these little touches made. Ten-million-dollar professional athletes had their dispositions brightened by fifty-dollar gift cards. But all week long I heard from the players about what great stuff they were finding in their rooms and how cool their wives and family thought the whole experience was.”

One smart fellow, if you ask me. Payton wanted the experience to be good for the families so the athletes could keep their minds on football.

He tells how in summer training camp at Millsaps College a few years back, after days and weeks of two-a-days in the sweltering heat, he made arrangements for the entire team to take over a water park near Jackson, Mississippi for the day. And when they held their camp at the Metairie facility, toward the end of a brutal few weeks, one day they bused the team to Mandeville on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain and played paintball all day.

Before key games when any tiny motivational edge could be crucial, Payton brought in veteran coaches and Hall-of-Fame players to speak to his team.

Pastors would do well to learn from this man.

Motivating the church team–the ministerial staff, the office staff, the support team, and the membership itself–is one of the most important things a pastor can do. And many, sad to say, have no clue.

A few comments on Payton’s techniques….

1. Know the people you’re working with.

A lesser coach would have concluded that highly paid professional athletes would not be swayed by gifts in a hotel room. Payton says, “These were not, by and large, young men from privileged backgrounds. Most of them came from tough city neighborhoods and out-of-the-way small towns, although some had attended top universities.”

He knew who he was working with.

2. Learn from other motivators.

When he had been a player and later as an assistant, he had seen his coaches bring in speakers to fire up the team. Some had worked and some had fizzled.

Before the Super Bowl game, Payton had invited his mentor, Coach Bill Parcells, then the head of the Miami Dolphins, to address the Saints. Parcells declined but sent a message, which Payton relayed to the players. He writes, “Bill’s message wasn’t something he dreamed up alone. It dates back decades before him. It sounds to me like pure Vince Lombardi, but it probably goes back even further than that.”

What Parcells said: One day in the future, after the band has stopped playing and the crowd has stopped cheering, when people stop paying to come see you play, and it’s quiet and all you’re left with is yourself, you have to be able to answer the question: Did I do my best? Do I do everything possible to win this game?

3. Look for opportunities to create learning situations.

During Super Bowl week, Tuesday is Media Day. There’s no practice. So the night before, players often do the town. Some hit the night spots and party. Payton writes, “I’m not naive. If I were a player, that’s the night I’d be going out. But I’d d–n sure make the Tuesday morning bus.”

The buses were scheduled to leave the hotel at 10 am and were due at the stadium 40 minutes later. Five players did not make the bus.

“This was the perfect time for a crisis, Bill Parcells-style. It was early in the week. What the players had done really wasn’t that big a deal…. It was unimportant…. And one by one, the five missing players began to show up. This was going to be a teaching moment. Teaching by confrontation.”

What Payton did was to hold an impromptu team meeting, leaving the media waiting. When the doors were locked, he told his players, “You guys remind me of a team that’s just happy to be here.”

He continued, “There’s a lot of things i don’t do well. But I have very good intuition. It’s gotten me to this point in my career. Part of that is developed. Part of it’s innate. But I can, and I do, pay attention. And I have a good sense of what is going on here.”

“My intuition tells me that you guys are in for a rude awakening this coming weekend. I can smell an a–kicking on the way. I can smell a team that looks like they’re just happy to be in the Super Bowl. You guys reek of that team.”

Why, some of you can’t even make the bus on time.

You’re clueless, he said. You got no idea.

Payton crawled the coaches too.

And that’s when he gave them the Bill Parcells quote about “when the cheering stops.”

At the conclusion, quarterback Drew Brees asked if he could address the players. He wanted everyone else out, even the coaches. The Media was chomping at the bit outside, and the NFL brass were unhappy, but they could wait.

Payton writes, “When we went to work Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, everyone was focused. No one was just happy to be there.”

He concludes, “Rather than hold a phony meeting on Tuesday, the players gave me the perfect opportunity to create a crisis. They delivered it to me in a golden wrapper. The crisis was, We’re not ready, and the team we’re playing is doing everything in its power to be ready. It created a sense of urgency with the coaches and the players even before we began the work week.

4. We’re not talking about gimmicks for the sake of gimmicks.

At one point in the season, Payton had baseball bats made up with the Saints logo and “Bring the wood” imprinted in gold. That’s an expression heard in baseball meaning to arrive at the game planning to hit some balls.

Ronnie Lott, former championship player for the San Francisco Forty-Niners, addressed the team on “smelling success.” He kept driving that point home, adding, “I can smell success in this room.”

After a key victory in Texas, Payton wanted to celebrate with his team on the plane, but the flight from Dallas to New Orleans is so short, he had the pilots go the long way–by El Paso!–to add an hour to the flight. On board, they broke an NFL rule and served beer to the players. (No alcohol on team flights is the rule.) My point here is that no matter how driven he is–and he is the definition of that category–Payton knows the importance of a little celebrating at the right time.

People know when a leader is using a gimmick to manipulate them. But they also appreciate when the leader is sensitive to their needs and does not mind bending his rules to accommodate them.

5. Find out what needs fixing, no matter how insignificant it might seem to some.

When Payton had decided to take the Saints’ offer to become their coach, Bill Parcells told him, “Figure out what’s kept that organization from winning. Find it out quickly too. If you don’t, three years from now they’re going to be calling another press conference to announce a new coach.”

Now, personally, I was looking forward to this book to find out Payton’s full answer to this puzzle. He does not address the subject as such, although the clues are throughout the book.

For instance, the support staff had been in place with the team almost from the beginning. And some of them had an attitude.

One executive in the front office informed the players on the policy regarding cars. Payton says, “He went through the mileage restrictions, the return policy and about a hundred other rules and regulations. At some point, I stopped listening to him. It just rubbed me the wrong way. He finished and I left. I closed the door and looked around the room. ‘Pay no attention to what he just said,’ I told the coaches.”

Payton sought out Mickey Loomis, the general manager. “This is not a time for a lot of stupid technicalities,” he said. After all, the city had just endured a hurricane and barely survived it, and people had to live where they had to. Payton said, “Can you please tell our car guy, no more surprise visits?”

And that was the last he heard of that.

He writes, “In the same way we were evaluating the players, we were evaluating everyone–from who’s cooking the meals on up. A to Z, we were evaluating. Do they have the passion? Are they just punching the clock? Everyone came under scrutiny.”

Great point. Pastors would do well to pay close attention to that. Who is greeting the visitors? Are the rest rooms clean? Do the walls need painting? Are the printed handouts attractive? Are the people who speak and sing in the services the best the church has?

Drew Brees, quarterback for the Saints, has written a book too. Brees is a professing Christian. And if good works says anything about a fellow’s character–and it does!–then Brees is a champion off the field as well as on it. His book, “Coming Back Stronger,” tells his personal story, including how he had what is generally called career-ending shoulder surgery a few months before joining the Saints.

Brees’ book will be an entirely different kind of story. I’ll read it avidly too, and no doubt find life-lessons worth passing along.

No one is elevating a book or a football player above Jesus Christ. But we strongly believe that God uses people and their stories to teach His children valuable lessons. That’s what this is about.

3 thoughts on “Motivation Lessons from a Football Coach

  1. I’ve always felt that we can learn much from athletics. Paul certainly cited athletic competition. I don’t have a staff at the church I serve, so I’m trying to glean things to stir up the congregation, without seeming contrived. I must admit, it’s a challenge I am searching for answers too. Like the Saints, our church has not exactly been well regarded. I find myself putting out fires more than minsistering many times. But inch by inch we’ve made some progress. Three things from sports I believe we can apply:

    1)Maximum effort is a requirement, and motivation is a key factor in achieving this. The Saints were over-achievers. I liked the “different voices” angle on this. Do we leave our heart on the battlefield or do we give what we think we can get away with.

    2)Finding the right spots for people is a necessity. Reggie Bush isn’t an every down back, but used properly he changes a game. Finding where a Christian can best serve encourages them and edifies the body.

    3)How you respond to difficult and pressure situations determines your future success. The Saints rose above their past. Brees led with confidence but not arrogance. For a church, how do we deal with conflict, with theological differences, with sin. Do we deal with it in biblical faithfulness and love, or do we cast blame and comndemn.

    I’ll read the book. Lord knows I can use some insight!

  2. Joe,

    Thanks for this awesome review of the book. Tremendous take-aways for pastors. I will be using some of this soon.

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